Saturday, November 6, 2010

Science and Media Communications: turning data into enlightenment, Part 3 of 3

"Data for data itself is not very powerful. When data turns into information, it's very powerful. But if it only has a limited audience then it has a limited effect. And so, you have to get that information to the people that make decisions." - Ed Cassano, CEO,

To implement a media communications plan to support any scientific research project, it must be considered a vital component of the project, not an afterthought. It needs to be included in the early planning stages - hypothesis, methodology, logistics, analysis, and media communications. Depending on the nature of the project and the type of communication plan chosen, documentation and distribution of information could be ongoing throughout, as opposed to a "now that we're done, let's talk about it" approach. This could entail press releases, blog postings, or several other communication channels that can provide expedition updates.

Does this tack pose the hazard of discussing results prematurely, letting the cat out of the bag as it were? Not necessarily. A lot depends on how the communiques are fashioned and how true to scientific objectivity the project is trying to maintain. In any event, whether communication is distributed during the project or not, it must at least be involved from the get go to insure that all appropriate documentation takes place for future use.

Establishing a New Paradigm
Realistically, some media communication strategies would be less robust than others based on the specifics of the project. A study of, say, oceanic temperature variations throughout the Arctic over an extended historical period may relate to broader themes and issues than a project devoted to the migration patterns of one particular species of insect along the Arctic border. The former could more easily connect with an audience on the larger issue of global warming than perhaps the latter.

For research that has a more narrow or specific focus, cooperative consolidation with other researchers can help in bringing together similar or related data that can then be communicated under a unified topic or issue. However, this requires a new paradigm shift in thinking for many researchers and their supporting academic institutions. A protective, insular attitude often exists regarding research sites and data to insure maximum credit and attention is paid to those who have worked so hard to either conduct or fund a particular research project.

Given the types of limited communication strategies that have existed in the past (typically, a published paper followed by a press release and perhaps a lecture or two), these kind of self-centered attitudes are understandable but not productive when one considers the broader, global effects that the data can have in addressing critically important ecological issues. With cooperative consolidation, combined with a more proactive media communication plan, a greater good is served at a time when it is most needed and equal credit can be bestowed on all of the participants, from which all will benefit.

When I have spoken with scientists and researchers about this new paradigm, their enthusiasm becomes palpable. You can see the spark that originally ignited their love for exploration and scientific study suddenly burn bright again. But it can be fleeting. "Sounds great but that's not how the system works." "It's what we should be doing but our university just won't go for it." The challenge is in finding and supporting those who will be the drivers, the leaders, of this new way of thinking.

Bucking the System
Change will need to come from the top down. Whether demanding more effective, proactive media communication and outreach strategies or reshaping the system through cooperative consolidation, those who will change the system will be the ones at the top of the pyramid - in many cases, that means the funding sources.

As a media communications consultant and filmmaker, I am more than prepared and willing to assist any organization in reaching broader audiences. However, truth be told, my position is near the bottom of that pyramid. My interests are both global and self-serving and I am a support member to the project team, albeit one with unique expertise. The scientists or researchers are farther up the pyramid, with much greater influence, but they have others to answer to who may be less willing to change established protocol.

Change will come from those who greenlight these projects, whether it's private foundations, universities, investors, or government agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the leading sources of scientific research funding in the United States, now requires an outreach component in all grant proposals submitted for consideration. Coming from a major government-supported funder of research projects, this is a significant step.

Some of the major NGOs (non-governmental organizations) - like Conservation International, Oceana, WildAid, and others - are making great strides in combining scientific research projects with their own fund-raising operations and international outreach efforts. Seaweb directs their specific resources towards issuing newsletters that include collections of abstracts from published scientific studies - although not "translated" for the general populace, imagine receiving 25 to 35 abstracts on, say, climate change or commercial fisheries each and every month. Would these issues be less questioned if the information was proactively disseminated?

We could very well be on the cusp of a major change in expectations from funding agencies. With media communication strategies designed to reach greater audiences, supporters of scientific research will benefit from increased return on investment (ROI), to borrow a term from the business world.

And why shouldn't they? In today's world of limited economic resources, funders are willing to invest more in projects that will further educate target audiences, generate more quantitative and qualitative results (like shifts in public opinion or changes in government or international policy), and bring greater recognition to the supporting organization itself. They expect more than a published paper that ultimately collects dust on a shelf. With ecological and environmental issues pressing down on us, the stakes are too high to demand anything less.

Scientific Research - Time to Reach Out
Having been scuba diving for over 25 years, I have seen the decline in marine habitats, both locally and worldwide. Working in television commercial production and corporate marketing communications for several decades, I came to appreciate the power of the message in reaching a variety of audiences.

Now, as I focus on conservation issues at this stage of my life, deep down in my own personal, ideal world, I visualize a future where messages on coral reef protection share digital signage space with sales at Bloomingdale's at the local shopping mall; where protection of our natural resources is as much a part of our day-to-day psyche as is pondering what we shall have for dinner. A fanciful dream perhaps, but there is no time like the present for science to begin moving in that direction. And media communications can help do that.

Media communications can:
  • Reach those who can/should demonstrate change through personal awareness
  • Bring forth issues to policy- and decision-makers for direct action
  • Provide exposure which can open doors to other research opportunities
  • Generate a better qualitative return to facilitate future funding
Throughout history, science has often lead the way in innovation and advancement, but today the world is faced with serious issues that require comprehension and consensus among peoples, their leaders, and their economic interests. Science can provide many of the answers to these pressing issues. However, to do that requires information - ready available, understandable information.

About the author: As media producer, filmmaker, and marcomm consultant, Richard Theiss has provided high definition images for broadcast networks and non-profits in addition to developing and implementing marketing strategies for multi-billion dollar corporations. From sweeping Arctic vistas to pensive human interaction to the power of the great white shark, Richard Theiss/RTSea adheres to the principle of "Making the Message Matter."

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